On Asking The Wrong Questions

The Arts

I work in genre.

I’m not terribly interested in multi-generational family sagas or angsty on-off romances in Paris and Prague. I quite like existential crises in novels but anything with children leaves me cold (although there are plenty of exceptions). I greatly respect Kate Atkinson but can see her readers nodding their heads in recognition from their Cotswold gardens and I cannot relate to them.

It doesn’t mean these other novels are not good, of course, just that they don’t speak to me.

My writing is outside of the mainstream because the majority of readers want fictionalised reflections of their own lives. This does not make me emotionally stunted or intellectually stillborn; they say intellectual development ends with a baby’s cry. The pupil prematurely becomes the teacher. While they’re listening out for the baby alarm I’m off exploring ever more abstruse subjects.

As a child I tackled all the books I was told I needed to read; War and Peace, Anna Karenina, Pepys’s diaries, Vanity Fair, Joseph Andrews, Pride and Prejudice. I didn’t finish the Tolstoy but quite enjoyed the Fielding and loved the Pepys.

I realised that I was not capable of asking the kind of questions asked by others. The concerns of the mainstream were not mine; a flaw and a failing. So I headed for disreputable fare in the genre stacks.

My first question about Sherlock Holmes was not whether he’d catch Moriarty or why he was so scared of women, but why he felt the need to consistently justify his friendship with dim Dr Watson.

My first question concerning Agatha Christie’s Poirot; Was no-one else available to investigate this? As for Miss Marple, why did no-one ever tell her to stop being a nosy old bag and fuck off?

When I was a kid, there was an advertisement in the back of a superhero comic that offered salvation for American teenagers. It was a zit gun. It looked like a cross between a hypodermic syringe and a propelling pencil, and you placed it over the spot and pulled out a plunger, creating a vacuum. The question on every acne-ridden teen’s lips was; does it work? My question was, how do you empty it?

Always the wrong questions.

Thinking differently isn’t something you cultivate, it’s just something you can’t help doing. When King Kong fell from the Empire State Building, my first thought was, how will the New York sanitation department get rid of the body? Actually, the SF writer Philip José Farmer came up with a solution to that.

I was baffled and depressed by the sheer mean-spiritedness of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. I preferred Clarke’s Childhood’s End and Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine and Peake’s Gormenghast and even Peacock’s Nightmare Abbey, and therefore was seen to be dropping down several pegs in the literary quality stakes.

But it turns out you don’t have to like what others tell you to like. And the more you go your own way, the more unique a voice you become.

When you write in a genre you do not get invited to the same calibre of writers’ events. Within the literary hierarchies are other hierarchies, judgemental, aloof, subtly anti-semitic or homophobic. This used to bother me terribly until the day I decided to trust my own instincts and not play the game at all. A friend of mine interviewed a Very Famous Writer onstage while he adopted a fake persona for an hour, because he had created such a specific image of himself that he was now trapped within that public image. It wasn’t for me, although I’d have liked the Very Famous Writer part.

I only write what I feel the need to write. I don’t schmooze or attend literary gatherings. If you want a successful career as a novelist you may not wish to follow in my footsteps. Although of course that depends on how you judge success.

Some people have naturally left-field minds. Walking past ‘Transformations’, an extraordinary shop that used to be next to Euston Station, an American friend asked me what it was. The exterior once had a terrible painting of a man in a suit and hat entering as male and leaving in a frumpy frock. I explained that businessmen went there to relax in female attire. His first question was, Do they have a back entrance? Now, that’s a left-field mind.

Personally I think that for a writer, asking the wrong questions is the way to go.



29 comments on “On Asking The Wrong Questions”

  1. Stu-I-Am says:

    You’re right — for a writer the ‘wrong’ questions usually generate the far more interesting answers in a kind of literary Rorschach test way. Elsewhere, where flights of fancy are decidedly less desirable, the ‘right’ questions are required. But, they are too often buried in a morass of expediency and irrelevancy.

  2. Peter+T says:

    As one of your readers, I’m very happy that you are as you are and not whatever it’s supposed to be good to be. Though it’s far from a reflection of my own life as I don’t investigate murders or other crimes, I still feel quite at home with the characters in the PCU. But then, I do with Holmes and Watson. Must be odd?

    Yes it would be nice to be offered a Fellowship of the Royal Institute of Absolutely Top Fellows, but, since 90% of them are five star, slimy dipsticks, rejoice in not having been invited. And if you are, turn them down; you’ll regret it less than joining them.

  3. CorneliaAppleyard says:

    I think it was Oscar Wilde who said ‘Conformity is the last refuge of the unimaginative’.
    Please keep asking the questions.

  4. Brooke says:

    Wrong questions…or just different questions?
    Query: In O&L, why does Arthur spend so much time explaining why he needs John? On three separate occasions; slows the novel’s rhythm and pace.

  5. Jan says:

    Are you really outside the mainstream? I dunno that you truly are you know Chris. There are much more niche and strangely formatted e.g.s of Teccy fiction than B+M.

    You write largely within a very popular genre or produce one off thrillers and hopefully in the future a humdinger historical novel – possibly a saga….. I can’t really see that your writing is in fact non mainstream

  6. Helen+Martin says:

    Mainstream by whose definition? None of us think of ourselves as marginal and nor are we. Just beat your drum and those for whom it’s the right beat will follow.
    I see you’re planning on reading Children of the Jinn about the Kurds. The new edition apparently has good illustrations. Hope it’s as good as it looks. Our library doesn’t have it but it does have a whole series of children’s fantasy novels by Philip Kerr. Not quite the same thing.

  7. Stu-I-Am says:

    That ‘tedious old fool’ as Hamlet called Polonius, did make at least one judgement (among many wrong ones) that contained truth, literally: ‘To thine ownself be true.’ And I think nowhere is every interpretation of that phrase (cliche though it may be) more applicable than in writing fiction at an accomplished level and especially as a commercially successful author like CF. It is all too easy to fall victim to what (for now…) I’ll call the ‘arrogance of success.’

    It can mean getting caught up in, and deluded by, the rites of deification: the schmoozing, the talk shows, the ‘salons’ and the literary caste system, but more dangerous is the self-delusion of literary omnipotence. We give fine and visual artists leave to have ‘periods’ — authors, not so much. It is the rare author (and actor, for that matter) who can successfully cross the genre barrier — with the emphasis on ‘successful.’ Perhaps because (in my opinion) the right words are harder to come by than brush strokes or images.

    We as readers make little allowance for deviations by our favorite authors; and there always seems to be another ‘waiting in the wings’ with the expected formula if our favorite remains recalcitrant. No doubt it can be a trap for the unwary unless, of course, you have your very own genre like CF (yes — I think it is unique) made up of significant bits of the others. Then you cleverly move them around, pick and choose which to emphasize and still stay within expectations.

  8. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Helen+Martin Your mention of the late Philip Kerr brought a sigh. His Bernie Gunther series is second only to B&M as far as I am concerned.

  9. SteveB says:

    This sentence rings a bell with me
    But it turns out you don’t have to like what others tell you to like
    I remember very clearly one evening whem I was 13 I didnt have to like what my friends liked, of do what they did. If I wanted I could just be boring!

  10. Colin says:

    Love the Agatha Christie line, should be on the back of all her books!

  11. Joel (London UK) says:

    Someone has to stand up for John Watson! He isn’t dim, just less bright in the shadow of Holmes. Watson’s a military doctor, so does what he’s told – Doyle’s brief to Watson is to report Holmes’ doings (inconsistently, especially on dates so maybe not so sharp) and not be a clever-dick.

    Anyway, what we think in adolescence ain’t neccer-celery [Jennings, by Anthony Buckeridge] what we think now, so maybe Chris, you’re more sympathetic to Dr Watson now? He was never allowed to be brilliant.

  12. Helen+Martin says:

    Watson was a stand in for the “average”reader. That tells you what Doyle thought of his readership.
    @Stu, I was surprised to see that Kerr had written a whole series of fantasy books for children. Mystery and children’s books, now those are two very definite and different genres.

  13. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Joel (London UK) Agree. Even Holmes himself weighs in with respect in ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles,’ grudging or perhaps condescending though it may be.

    ‘Really, Watson, you excel yourself,’ said Holmes, pushing back his chair and lighting a cigarette. ‘I am bound to say that in all the accounts which you have been so good as to give of my own small achievements you have habitually underrated your own abilities. It may be that you are not yourself luminous, but you are a conductor of light. Some people without possessing genius have a remarkable power of stimulating it. I confess, my dear fellow, that I am very much in your debt.’

  14. Brooke says:

    Also in HofB Holmes sends Watson on a dangerous mission to protect a client. In other stories it’s clear that Holmes values Watson as a seasoned soldier, medically trained, to be trusted.
    ITired of reading “he (Holes) was so scared of women.” In the Naval Treaty, the Golden Pince Nez, the Second Stain, the Noble Bachelor, Solitary Cyclist, as so on…he’s sympathetic and enlists female assistance. He doesn’t like the women in The Greek Interpreter, The Illustrious Client and the Beryl Coronet; Doyle makes the female characters in these stories silly and nasty.
    Not liking the Holmes stories in one thing, not having read them is another.

  15. Stu-I-Am says:

    On the matter of ‘wrong’ questions of another kind — two very timely (and of course very ‘wrong’, under the circumstance) questions:

    (1) Was the Sterling foul/penalty legitimate ?
    (2) Should the match have been stopped because of the second ball on the pitch ?

    Nevertheless — three cheers for the Three Lions!

  16. John Howard says:

    Now it just behooves me to say… What football…?

  17. John Griffin says:

    The awkward question – my own was addressed to Mr Curtis, the economics teacher at my Northern grammar, back in the 60s. He had been droning on about supply and demand, and the rational consumer. Griffin the working class Oik pipes up with “but Sir, people are simply not rational, so that means this is wrong!” Much hilarity ensued, NOT to the liking of Mr Curtis, nor my housemaster Mr Ashton, who told me off in no uncertain terms. Honest non-conformity or awkward stances, alas, don’t normally make money.

  18. Brooke says:

    Griffin thus became founder of the academic discipline behavioral economics. Way to go!.

  19. Stu-I-Am says:

    @John Griffin Even at your tender age, you were right about the classical economic model. But like the traditional view of nature, economics — and many other disciplines, for that matter — abhors vacuums — so in the face of seeming irrationality or uncertainty (see: spending spree after Brexit), there is now behavioural economics. which incorporates psychological and social considerations into the discipline. This has presumably led to lucrative practices or consultancies for behavioural economists. And it will doubtless continue until new ‘awkward’ questions are asked. Clearly awkward or ‘wrong’ questions are to be desired — if only for new opportunities for economists.

  20. Helen+Martin says:

    @Stu. The correct answer to the above pair of questions is that it doesn’t matter because the decision of the referee in that moment is the final and unappealable one. If that were not the case then every match would end up in full on pitch-ed battles. There are many attempts to slide things behind the referee’s back and that is why referees must be carefully chosen. Two balls on the pitch only are contentious if they are capable of confusing the players and what the referee determines is a foul is, in fact, a foul. There is no pressure on us in our comfy seats at home with a camera overhead showing us more of the scene than the referee can see. I know, England wasn’t sure it was a foul, either, but we’ll take any benefit that’s offered, I suppose. Denmark has had some bad luck this time, especially with almost having a player die on the pitch, but like farmers there’s always next year and England won’t likely make it up there again any time soon. (I’m ducking behind a nearby wall. My team lost the Stanley Cup, too.)

  21. Peter+T says:

    The wrong question, such as John Griffin’s, is often the logical question. It’s often asked by an Aspie, who will be criticised for it by the less fortunate neuro-typicals.

  22. Helen+Martin says:

    We were always told that there are no stupid questions (but listen to the Komodo Dragon sketch and you won’t be so sure) but there are certainly no wrong questions. There is a competition in North America called the Olympics of the Mind which involves teams of elementary students solving (usually) physical problems. Organisers were told to choose a variety of students, not just so-called smart ones and most definitely to include the kid who always comes out with the weird, off centre remark. I watched a teacher putting together a team that didn’t have an off-centre person on it. Teachers just don’t get it, do they?

  23. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Helen+Martin We’d better stop with the football or we’re likely to be barred. Btw — sorry about the ‘Habs.’ But no Cup for Canada in 28 years is hard to believe. Anyway, the last question I have about the match is, as might be expected, the clean-up after it was said to be monumental. The thousands of discarded plastic pint glasses, food containers and remnants of fireworks I understand. But empty laughing gas (nitrous oxide) canisters ? There couldn’t have been that many dentists celebrating or, was it the case that after 55 years, there was concern about remembering how to feel naturally elated ?

  24. Helen+Martin says:

    I didn’t hear about the laughing gas. What were they thinking. I have difficulty understanding the mindset of people who can carry in all sorts of bags of stuff but can’t manage to carry it out again. What about the recycling I ask!
    I watched a series on East Coast Trains (he enjoys my calligraaphy, I share his trains) and watched the security and police set up for the return of the fans through the stations. They weren’t excessively riotous but then they had police on horseback and some dog handlers as well. All this to herd football fans back to their train station. Get people into a crowd, let them drink more than a bit, give them something to cheer about and then you have to have mounted patrols to keep them from going berserk? Humans are really weird.

  25. Paul C says:

    Curiously few good novels about football. Wonder why ?

    My favourite is How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the F.A. Cup by the much under-rated J. L. Carr, published in 1975. A charming fantasy about a very minor village team winning the cup. The Damned United by David Peace also
    springs to mind but that’s about it. Any more ?

    On the non-fiction side Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby is a very enjoyable read (even if you don’t like Arsenal).

  26. Helen+Martin says:

    In non-fiction there’s also How Soccer Explains the World: an unlikely example of globalisation. It will leave you disliking the game and its fans but is quite interesting. Wonder if our library has any of those.

  27. Helen+Martin says:

    Answer, No, although Damned United is available as a CD (I’m assuming Manchester). There are dozens of books through our system, hundreds perhaps on skills and tactics, introduction for kids and even one called How to Watch but the fiction is all “Froggy Plays Soccer” and all your other favourite little characters involved in a game. There’s even “Your First Match” with little four year olds on the cover but authors must think that fans don’t read fiction. Come on, why not a mystery involving the interior dynamics of a club, personal relations, all the things that real people have plus the performance tensions.

  28. Sunman42 says:

    Helen+Martin – It’s been called “Odyssey of the Mind for some years. Both of my kids participated, now ~ 20 years ago, and enjoyed the experience a lot, if only because winning the state competition meant a trip to a regional one that involved a long weekend away from parents. Having one super-bright kid on one’s team could be quite exciting if s/he was non-neuro-typical: you didn’t know whether s/he would answer 80% of the questions the team were asked, or, having a bad day, simply clam up. The other kids, being both smart and considerate, were fine with that. Such a great experience.

  29. Helen+Martin says:

    Sunman – right you are and Odyssey of the Mind it is. I always thought the idea was great and gave a chance for the offside mind to come up with something “Just weird enough to work.”

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